One day, just a few short years ago, Daniel Kwan leaned over to his creative partner Daniel Scheinert and said the 17 words that would change both of their lives forever: “We need to make a movie about a man who rides a farting corpse across the ocean.”
The directorial duo, who met in an animation class at Emerson College and now collectively credit themselves as “Daniels,” had always thrived by latching on to spectacularly bad ideas. Similar strokes of juvenile genius had provided inspiration for their oddball shorts (i.e. the self-explanatory “My Best Friend’s Sweating“), as well as for the music videos that made their name famous (DJ Snake and Lil’ Jon’s “Turn Down for What”). And yet, for all of Daniels’ previous success, they had no way of knowing that Kwan’s gaseous epiphany would eventually attract the attention of Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano, and evolve into a feature-film debut — entitled Swiss Army Man — that would eventually premiere at Sundance to a sold-out crowd.
It starts out normally enough: Hank (Dano) has been stranded on a desert island for so long that he’s lost the will to live. When he unexpectedly spots a body that’s washed ashore, his first thought is to use the belt its wearing as a noose. And that’s when the corpse starts farting. A lot. By the time the opening titles appear on screen, Hank is speeding along the surface of the ocean, yowling into the wind as he rides his new forcefully flatulent companion like a jet-ski. Then he steers this makeshift vessel to a distant shore — at which point things really start to get weird.
Yes, Swiss Army Man sounds unfathomably stupid, and that’s exactly what excited the two men about committing to it. “We both agree the idea was so bad that it didn’t deserve to be made,” Kwan insists.”It had no point for existing and it would’ve cost too much money. It wasn’t until we started thinking of it as a feature-length film that we started to get excited. Originally we thought that no one else was going to want to do this, and that we would just have to act in it ourselves. But the script was so weird that it drew moths to the fire. If we managed to find some willing actors, it’d be really fun to play with the context of their casting.”
And there isn’t a single actor in the world who brings more baggage to a man who died than the Boy Who Lived. “It was not a hard sell,” Radcliffe casually pipes in, as if it hadn’t been difficult for two first-time feature filmmakers to ask Harry Potter to play someone who eventually gets his butthole plugged with a wine cork. (Don’t ask.) “There wasn’t any pushback from ‘my team’ or whatever — the people I’m closest to know my tastes.”
Scheinert laughs, remembering the moment he realized that Radcliffe might actually say yes: “We got an email saying ‘Daniel’s dad loves the script.'”
“Maybe my dad and everyone else was secretly thinking, ‘Shit, what is he doing?'” the star guesses.
“I guarantee you they were,” Kwan replies.
“[To Paul Dano] One of my favorite moments is when you use my boner as a compass. I love that.”-Daniel Radcliffe
But Radcliffe has always been in touch with his dark side, and the work that he’s done in the wake of finishing the Harry Potter franchise has revealed an actor who would rather weaponize the aura of his celebrity than resign to its fixed dimensions. “You can’t start from the goal of wanting to please all your fans,” he reasons. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who, when I did Equus, were like ‘OK, I’m done with him!’ But that’s great! And if someone goes to see something who wouldn’t have done so if I wasn’t in it, then that’s fucking great!” As for Dano, the decision to come aboard was even easier: “I knew that I was probably going to do the film even before I read it because I was a big fan of theirs … and just wanted whatever they were drinking.”
Judging from the movie’s tweaked tangents involving therapeutic cross-dressing and involuntary reactions to old Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues (“One of my favorite moments is when you use my boner as a compass,” Radcliffe tells Dano. “I love that.”), they must have been imbibing some fairly potent stuff. The entire notion of these two men marooned on some remote locale almost feels like an excuse to indulge in some very Pythonesque absurdism. “We’re not in love with survival films,” Scheinert admits. “Because those movies are about men conquering nature, and we didn’t connect strongly with that. We’re weird metrosexual boys; if I was lost in the woods, I’d just have a lot of feelings.”
Yet for all the hipster goofiness and fart jokes — and it’s safe to say that Swiss Army Man boasts more farts than any other movie ever made — the film is ultimately a modern fable that leverages physical embarrassment into an oddly affecting examination of individual vulnerability. “I think we actually do the crazy things we do because we want to make sincere movies, and the only way our artistic brains can do sincerity is if we couch it in something else,” Kwan says after a moment of reflection. “I think of it like a Trojan Horse — a younger audience who has grown up with the Internet has seen every trope done to death and it’s very hard to be moved anymore. I think this is just our weird way of getting people to a space where they can learn something new about the world.”
“Honestly,” he adds, “the only thing we were trying to do was start a movie with a fart joke and end the movie with a fart that makes you cry.”